They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
1 Peter 2:19-25
For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Once upon a time there was a sheep named Molly. She lived with a whole lot of sheep in a big flock of sheep in a place called Alberta where there were long winters.
Life wasn’t too bad for Molly. Mostly what she did was ate grass that she foraged on the fields. Even in winter if the snow wasn’t too wet or the winds didn’t blow too hard Molly and the rest of the sheep could eat grass, and even use the snow for water.
There was somebody who owned the place where Molly lived.
Molly didn’t know who it was, but there were a few men who looked after the sheep. They didn’t do a whole lot. They made sure there were wind breaks up with straw for the coldest windiest days in the winter.
Sometimes when the show was wet or it was icy, they would bring straw out for the sheep.
They would take the wool off the sheep in the spring, with something that buzzed. The men were kind of rough although to tell the truth, it was more that it was scary than it actually hurt.
But you could tell these were just hired men, because not only did they not care for the sheep, they would kick the sheep or hit the sheep, so you tried to stay out of their way.
Sometimes they would even take a sheep, steal it and Molly would never see that sheep again.
But worse than that, occasionally in the middle of the night, some complete stranger would come and take a sheep.
You could tell that the person was up to no good, because they never had a light and they would take a knife and kill the sheep and take it. Usually one of the smaller ones, or a lamb.
But most dangerous of all were the coyotes, (or pronounced coyotee if you watched bugs bunny cartoons)
They would come in groups at night and try to steal the lambs. Molly and the sheep would herd together to try and protect each other but it didn’t always work.
The coyotes were super dangerous. Molly had heard that wolves were dangerous and bears were dangerous, but by far it was coyotes who did the most damage. She had never seen a bear or a wolf although occasionally a dog might try something.
So that was the worst thing that Molly and the sheep had to deal with.
The other thing that was a pain is that the sheep didn’t all get along with one another. They would get together in little groups and one group would think they were the bosses and could tell the others what to do.
That group had some of the biggest and toughest sheep and they bullied the others. They always got the best place to eat grass and the best place to drink water.
They always got the best place in the shelters when it was cold or windy.
They would eat their fill of the hay that was provided, and then the others would get their chance.
Molly tried to ignore these bullies as much as possible, but sometimes it wasn’t possible.
But one day something happened. The farm must have been sold or something, because a new man showed up with the sheep.
He was nice. He didn’t hit the sheep, or kick them. He would pet the sheep.
In fact, he gave everyone names. That is how Molly got her name.
Somehow after a while he could call every sheep by name.
And he made sure the fences were good. And he made sure the shelters were really good. When he sheared wool, he was very gentle and spoke kindly to the sheep. And he was kind to everyone.
When hay was put out, he would make sure every sheep got access and got the same.
If a couple of sheep were bullying others, he would put them in another pen for a couple of days and be nice to them and then bring them back when they had settled down.
Most of the time that worked.
Or if two sheep were fighting, he would take them into a pen and let them stay together and he would watch them until they settled down and became friends.
This man Molly guessed must be the new owner. When it was lambing season, he would sleep out in the fields in a big warm bag and be there for the mothers, and would try to help the ewes when they had their babies.
And you know what, that first year not one baby died. That was unusual.
The man got a couple of dogs to watch over the flocks and even got a llama.
Shortly after the llama came, one night a couple of coyotes came. The llama spit at them and one of them coyotes came too close. The llama kicked it so hard it went halfway to British Columbia.
It didn’t mean that the coyotes didn’t stop trying, but with the dogs and the llama the coyote threat went way, way down.
You know after a couple of years of this new owner if you asked Molly, she would say being a sheep on this farm now, was a little bit like heaven on earth.
Things were good. The man obviously loved them. And the sheep loved him back.
One time when one of the lambs somehow got outside the fence, the man went all night looking for it and brought it home nice and safe the next morning. Was its mother ever happy.
You know as Molly thought about it. It was like a new gate opened when that man came, and they passed through that gate to a new and better life.
In fact, most of the sheep even forgot that he was a man, and even though he looked different, they just treated him as if he was one of their own. …that he was a sheep too.
That he was family.
That’s how Molly thought. And while Molly didn’t know if life was going to be happily ever after…
She and the sheep were pretty happy now.
The passage of scripture we read earlier is a much-quoted passage of scripture.
Jesus says that he is the gate.
Jesus says: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
And then if you go on to the next verse Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd.
The text says that the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was getting at and I can understand their consternation.
There are so many metaphors all clumped together here that it boggles the imagination.
There is the gate.
There are the thieves and the robbers.
There is pasture.
There is the gatekeeper. There is the shepherd.
There is the hired man.
There is the wolf.
There are other sheep not in this sheep pen.
Jesus is referred to as three different metaphors. He is the gatekeeper. He is the gate. He is the good shepherd.,
And who do each of the metaphors refer to? Are the sheep the church or just people or the Jews or everybody?
Are the different sheep not in the pen Christians or non-Christians or Jews or some other faith group, or people who are not religious?
Are the wolves people?
Are the thieves and bandits the Jewish Leaders?
In Ignatian Spirituality one might enter the story in various way as being various characters.
Rather than try to identity to whom each of the metaphors refers…
Imagine that you are each of the characters or metaphors.
In what way am I a wolf? Whom do I intimidate, or take a bite out of? whom or what do I want to consume?
Where do I take what I shouldn’t take? Where am I aggressive towards others?
In what way am I a thief or a robber? Do I physically take what is not mine, or maybe I am more an emotional thief demanding of others their time, their talents, their respect, their attention, their stuff, their money, their obligation, their pity… Maybe I lay a guilt trip on them, or give them the silent treatment, or order them around, or swear at them, or talk behind their backs. When I use someone for my ends, I am taking from them.
What kind of sheep am I? Whom do I follow? Myself? My peers? My family?
Whom do I listen to? Do I recognize the difference in voices that would use me or hurt me or consume me? Do I recognize the voice of healing, care, conscience and duty?
Can I hear the voice of Jesus among all the other voices?
Am I a gatekeeper? Do I control others and let people in and out of my life, or the life of my family or my church or my group? Do I have a group that keeps people out? Do I judge that others are not good enough to be part of me? Do I make wise choices about who to let in to my life? Do I sometimes have to let go of those who are hurting me or taking too much from me?
These are subtle and demanding distinctions.
And what kind of shepherd am I? Whom do I care for? What kind of caregiver would people say that I am? Do I really serve the other? Can I keep self-interest out of my service? Do I need to be noticed when I serve? Does my ego need to be stroked? Do I serve to help the other, or to feel good about myself?
Am I gentle, compassionate, understanding, forgiving, set good boundaries, listen well?
Do I help heal the inner wounds that people have?
What is the pasture that I need? Do I need to change my diet? To exercise? To meditate? To practice more spiritual disciples like prayer and scripture reading?
To I take the time to examine the inner life, to deep dive into my pain, to unclutter the furniture of my past and unfinished business…
Am I working towards a non-judgemental lifestyle, a life or inner serenity and peace? Or am I just stuffing my pain, or keeping busy, or working hard and avoiding my soul?
I think we could take this one passage and spend years on it, asking questions and deep diving into our souls?
And what that suggests to me is that one of the things that Jesus is…is a gate…
…a gate into our inner lives…
He stands at the door of our heart, or our souls, or our spirits and he knocks…
He wants us to open up our lives, our souls, our spirits, our minds, our hearts, our bodies and our lives to love and healing and forgiveness and understanding.
To peace and joy…
And this opening up of ourselves is two things. It is to be open to receive love and care, and also it is to be open to give love and care.
And that is what I think the scripture is talking about when it talks about Jesus as the gate. About a gate that opens to live, to abundant life.
Often in our lives we think of gate or doors or walls as ways to keep out what we don’t want in.
Think of border walls, and Gated communities, and Iron Curtains and Hadrian’s wall, and all the ways we put our physical and social walls and gates to distance ourselves and protect ourselves and keep out the barbarians…
Jesus is not about closing people out, but opening up a gate to abundant life.
For Jesus is about opening. It is about us moving to something new, something better, something whole, something true, something precious, something inclusive, something divine…
What gates lie before me. What doors do I need to open? What passages do I need to take? Where do I need to move or change or become?
Because Jesus offers abundance.
Think of that. Abundance.
We live in a world of scarcity. That is the basic rule of economics isn’t it. The scarcer it is, the more it costs, because the demand is great.
Witness the scarcity of health masks and how people were selling them for a big profit…
…or how hand sanitizer doubled or tripled in price or even more.
But Jesus says the basic problem in this world is not scarcity, the problem is that we don’t share.
What would this world look like if we shared and made sure that nobody went without?
It would look like abundant life.
There is a picture in the scripture lesson in Acts of how the first disciples took their possessions and their assets, and shared; and things were held in common and distributed to each other as people were in need.
I am not trying to argue for some kind of political system based on one verse of scripture.
Some scholars even point out that those early disciples thought that Jesus was coming back in the clouds any day and that why would you need any possessions?
They turned out to be wrong.
They forgot that Jesus had come back at Pentecost and that the place where Jesus lived was in them.
But still, the picture of that early church was that of abundance.
Nobody went without, because everybody shared.
The picture of that early church was of people being physically and spiritually fed.
The picture of that early church was that of a community of love.
It was of people who walked through the gate of Jesus into a new community of love.
You will read in the book of Acts that Christianity was first called “the Way.” This was in part because Christians were not known by their doctrine or their scripture, but by their way of life. They acted differently and practiced their faith in concrete ways. And they were marked by equality for the poor, for slaves for women, for people of different races and cultures, all bound together in Jesus.
Justin Martyr wrote in the second century:
We who formerly… valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possession, now bring what we have into common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different tribe, now since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies…
And he wrote:
We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.
Those who became Christian passed through Jesus, the gate, to a new way of life:
A loving community centred on the one who is love.
I don’t literally believe in fairy tales and nor do I think there are happily ever afters, but I do believe living in loving community brings happiness. I do believe that Jesus is a gate to a better way of life. Amen.